On Deal Island

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Pop-Pop
Deal Island is a three mile finger of land and tide about 15 miles off the beaten path in eastern shore Maryland. It’s where my great-grandfather, who we called Pop-Pop, lived until the (and his) mid 80s, which is also the last time I’d visited. Even though he’s long gone and the first word that always comes to mind when I think of Deal Island is mosquitoes, I had to get back. It should have been a tough sell to my girls, but they’re always up for adventure or maybe the challenge of seeing ordinary stuff that way.

We picked a sunny day with low humidity for our trip. If we’d gone the day before, I’m convinced westerly winds would have carried in biting flies like those from a particularly vivid childhood memory. Sure, I remember that time my great-grandfather’s cat scratched a perfect circle of blood around my wrist or the way the massive vinyl swing on his front porch creaked and groaned though never in a way that made me feel uneasy. But I’ll never ever forget the 2 mile walk that felt like 200. My brother and I were nearly eaten alive by greenheads and mosquitoes as we took a fun family hike along the bay. Our parents tossed back helpful tips like “walk faster so they won’t bite you” and other things I’ve surely never said to my own children, who are now more delicious than I. Deal Island was originally called Devil’s Island, though I’m not sure there’s truth to the rumors it was once a hotbed of pirate activity. If so, those were some tough pirates.

Driving in that clear day with its delightfully low dew point, the first thing we noticed was a perfect stranger waving to us. In fact, he didn’t even look up so wouldn’t have known we were strangers, though I don’t guess it would have mattered. I’d remembered it as a kind of Mayberry on the water, and not much had changed.

The old bank building was still there. My great-grandfather worked there until the stock market collapse of 1929. When there was a run on the bank, a customer who was also a neighbor waved a gun at him. It was panic, nothing personal then or when the bank closed like many small town banks had to. It sat empty for years and then someone converted the inside to a machine shop. It sits empty again and for $24,900, anyone can buy it.

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Probably the most anticlimactic stop was in front of my great-grandfather’s old house. It’s been so lovingly renovated that I couldn’t recognize enough to tap into nostalgia. Instead we kept walking down the street, past an old gothic revival farmhouse that could only be suitable to vampires. Only on the walk back did we notice an identical gothic revival farmhouse right next door. I did not take pictures of either and deeply regret this, but you probably wouldn’t have either.

Our next stop was the final resting place of both great-grandparents and also Joshua Thomas, Parson of the Islands. He predicted the British fleet’s defeat in Baltimore that inspired Francis Scott Key and our national anthem. Also, he was born in a place called Potato Neck and his dad died from a dog bite and his stepfather was a drunken lout who forever turned young Joshua off alcohol. I now remember why book reports were such a challenge. It’s tough telling which facts are weeds because they all seem important.

I can tell you that cemetery was the biggest challenge of the day. My dad had provided a quaint hand drawn map to find the family plot but failed to warn us half the people buried on that island share the same last name.

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The eldest at least a half hour in
Three passes after I’d first given up, I found the plot and yelled so loud I probably woke Joshua Thomas of Potato Neck. We piled back in the car and drove until the road dead ended by crab shedding facilities at Wenona harbor. On the way back, I snapped this picture of a crumbling beauty an 1877 atlas designated the “Colored Church and School”.

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I almost drove past another (mystery) beauty, but if you only get to a place once in 30 years, you find yourself doing asinine road maneuvers so you can go back and take pictures while your kid swats at bugs only kids can feel because adults are old and taste terrible

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The next to last stop was at the public beach, where someone else had already written Pop-Pop in the sand and we collected a generous handful of tumbled sea glass. The funny thing about that is I’d had in mind to treat myself to something at the 5 year sober mark, but nothing seemed right and then I found it.

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The final stop of the day was a bait and sundry shop where I purchased candy bars for the drive back. I picked a Whatchamacallit, which I also hadn’t experienced in about 30 years and my kids thought I’d forgotten the name and was just calling it that. Some days you look back and find yourself feeling lost and disappointed. This wasn’t one of those days.

 

 

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A mostly true Valentine’s story

She was signing all their names on a card with much love and flourish, when the cat, the usual one, got his head stuck in a bag and, backing up like a blind idiot, knocked over a full cup of what must have been scalding hot coffee on his precious pink paw pads.

The coffee spread like a muddy puddle, soaking all of the cards and one heart-shaped box of chocolates and then trickled down to the seat cushion, where it left a saucer-sized stain.

She yelled to the cat “you ruined thanksgiving!” because she was upset and not thinking clearly and he had knocked over a full cup of coffee and she’d only had one, maybe two, sips or perhaps it was a premonition, but he was already long gone, hiding under a chair or inside the curtains that rendered him invisible, surely thinking bags were the devil’s handiwork but only for about five minutes because cats, this one in particular, are not very bright though their hearts are expansive and forgiving.

She knew herself to blame since she was the one who asked the volunteer at the animal shelter for the silliest, softest cat they had. Give me one who will hide under rugs and trip us, she said, who will wake us up at 2 and 4 and spill my coffee. Give me one to test the limitless boundaries of my love, again and again.

  

  
  

you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry

I'm the green one. This might be what is referred to as foreshadowing.
I’m the green one. This might be what is commonly referred to as foreshadowing.
At Pioneer Camp, we dipped candles and churned butter and made salad from day lillies. In the root cellar of a 200 year old mansion, we dribbled red wax at the V of an envelope and eased a stamp into it to form our own seals. I also blindfolded Gigi Dixon and sent her tumbling down a scrubby hill, so it wasn’t all bad. I’ll never forget how perplexed she looked climbing back up with all those briars and brambles in her hair.

I’m pretty sure that was the same day  another girl and I had been squabbling over something (candles? stamps? whether or not one should actually eat day lillies??) when prissy Gigi admonished us with a “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” The counselor smiled and patted her head so that her perfectly curled pigtails shook like they were snickering. I seethed and noticed the strips of torn bedsheet we’d just dyed with boiled elderberry would make perfect blindfolds.

There was also the great bookbag fight of ’81 – which I totally won because a  Strawberry Shortcake bookbag weighted with matching lunchbox wins everytime against someone who buys lunch – plus that unfortunate phase in middle school where I pushed friends into trees. Do I need to go back as far as the biting episodes in nursery school or doesn’t everyone go through that?

Anger and I are old friends, though I thought I lost him around the time I discovered alcohol, which seeped into and soothed the jagged cracks of my psyche. After alcohol came cookies. God bless the cookies.

The thing about addicts is we’re always addicted to something. Alcohol, cookies, blindfold tricks and bookbag fights…even Recovery. We’re hooked on the thrill of altered states, and the more painful the better! Anything to take the edge off excruciating boredom and loneliness and the dreaded feeling that yep, maybe this is all there is. And so the next bandaid gets ripped off and the festering wound underneath gives us something new to focus on. If I don’t wind up a perfect human being by this time next year, I’m going to be really angry.

Just kidding. But I have been addressing old issues with sugar and last week I felt terrific and this week I’m looking for things to use as blindfolds. Writing is a nice release. Phew. I feel much better. Thanks for reading.

George

George wears high-waisted tan polyester trousers with a brown belt and keeps a plastic liter of vodka on the kitchen table, which my grandmother carefully wipes around with a yellow sponge before setting out a glass dish with fresh cherries and another with salted cashews.

My brother and I drink cokes with maraschino cherries trapped at the bottom and sneak glances at our new exotic windfall – a drunken grandfather we never knew we had until that day.

We wear street clothes in the middle of a perfectly good beach day, which makes us feel formal and restless, like anything could happen.  George wears his short-sleeved shirt unbuttoned at first and then he is shirtless. He puffs out his chest and pumps both arms to show off his muscles. His body odor seeps into the kitchen and won’t leave.

The strangeness of it all forces me to reassess our other two grandfathers, who had seemed perfectly adequate up to that point.

One grandfather takes me for donuts and coffee at a place with spinning barstools and sugar encrusted coffee rings against gold-flecked formica.  We stare at the donuts behind the counter instead of each other, and this is better than fine.

The other grandfather lets me lie along the back console of his plush Buick – the flat area against the window where he normally keeps hats or a box of travel tissues . We listen to talk radio and wind along the beltway on some fool’s errand to please my grandmother.

Grandfathers in my family are benevolent background, busy cogs that keep family dinners moving. The grandmothers think they run the show but who do they think mashes the potatoes or ducks out to buy them in the first place?

My grandmother tells me George used to pinch my mother when she was a baby so he wouldn’t have to hold her. She couldn’t understand why my mother always screamed and cried until she noticed red welts on the backs of both plump baby thighs.

* * *

George puts his hand on my grandmother’s arm when she finally sits down and laughs when she swats it away. She won’t look any of us in the eye. George tells my brother and I to do good in school and listen to our parents without seeming to have any idea who they are.

We never see him again.

A few years later, I find a black and white 8×10 photograph of a man wearing a Viking hat slipped between the pages of a dictionary my grandmother gives me. She says the dictionary used to belong to George. There weren’t many personal effects. He died penniless and his body was not found for several days, even though he was rumored to have a longstanding lady friend. (I picture Faye Dunaway’s character from Barfly.)

The photograph is a close up of the Viking’s face, though I can tell he is at least shirtless and standing in a meadow. He is smiling, victorious, and has a wide gap between his front teeth and wild, long hair.

I will always wonder what the hell happened to that photograph. Losing it will haunt me forever, I imagine.

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Grandmother and George

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